I make my way to 40Forty Lounge in Westlands just before the madness known as Nairobi rush hour kicks in. I am here to meet Ndegwa Matimu – a 35-year-old visionary who has invested heavily in Kenya’s Interior Decor scene (more on that later).
As is the case when I set out for such seat-ins, I prefer dropping in earlier than arranged just to get things off on the right note. I find a stool at the far end of one of the most famous counters in the Kenyan capital.
By famous I mean the workmanship. That’s the first thing that hits you when you see it. A perfect blend of hardwood, polished granite and invisible light fixtures gives it this rustic yet futuristic feel.
I take a quick mental note “Ndegwa has to tell me the story behind this counter”.
The lounge itself is friendly, unpretentious, with attentive bar staff. Coupled with some vibrant decor, a relaxed atmosphere, and not having to remortgage to buy drinks...I now understand why it’s such a popular place to kick back in the city.
After 15 or so minutes filled with small talk between me and my attending Waitress, Ndegwa walks in and immediately spots us.
Black and white Converse rubber shoes, blue jeans, and a black & white checkered shirt is his choice of clothing – the new-age entrepreneur indeed. I feel a bit overdressed in my tucked-in sky-blue shirt and khaki pants.
I had taken the liberty to order some food in the hopes that by the time it’s ready, we’d be done with our conversation. As a good friend of mine once told me ‘nothing serious is discussed after a meal’.
It’s easy to tell that he is well respected in this quarters based on the VIP treatment I start receiving. We are ushered from the counter all the way across the lounge, up a flight of stairs and into an actual VIP section. Work perks I guess.
We spend the next couple of minutes making the usual small talk, how’s business, ni kujaribu tu, this sun can kill… the whole shabang.
Once I notice that he looks relaxed we jump right into the interview. I make it clear from the get-go that I am particularly interested in money, as are my readers. How it’s raised, how it’s made, how it’s managed...the whole ten yards.
I also make it clear to him that I tell stories for a living. There’s nothing more powerful than a good story is what I’ve come to learn.
This is Ndegwa Matimu’s Story, the director/project manager/sales executive/fundi at Neat ‘n’ Fit, an Interior Decor firm that has been making waves in the Kenyan capital and beyond.
Kindly note that his titles are all very real as is the case with most SMEs in Kenya. When you start such a company, you more often than not end up serving in multiple roles for quite a while.
Back to Ndegwa’s story…
He chuckles and takes a swig at his mango juice glass.
Well...I guess sometimes you just know that a certain path isn’t for you. I interned at CBK during my younger years...I don’t know how you got the information but it’s true. I have also worked at a local bank as well.
Trust me when I tell you that shifting from such a prestigious employer and opting to tarmac these unforgiving streets of Nairobi did not go down well with most of my close ones. But hey, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and do what you need to do for YOU.
The bank job was rewarding but unfulfilling if that makes any sense at all. I have always been obsessed with space and how to make the most of it. This suited me really well when I (plus two good friends decided to dive into the world of business).
A common drive and interest in this craft brought us (Steve, Lauren, and myself) together and Neat n Fit Ltd was born. We are a design and build company that has been playing around with people’s spaces for 7 years now.
It started as an interior design company where we mostly focused on homes, mainly taking the advisory role such as helping our friends (coz they weren’t really clients at the start) ...we just helped them figure out how to maximize on the available space and minimise clutter by introducing a few interior accessories.
We have been growing gradually ever since to where we are at the moment. Our uniqueness as a company first is the experience we have had in the interior business and the chemistry that we have amongst us, our natural ability to relate well with our clients, matching their queries with practical and affordable solutions.
Trust, definitely building trust. As a new company not many people have confidence in you since you don’t have evidence of work done, so getting business was quite a hurdle for us.
What we did was to ask for support from family and friends for whom we were able to do a few jobs and that gave us a bit of experience. So, at least, we had something to show when it came to looking for a business.
Raising finances was a major hurdle as well, especially when it came to the acquisition of jobs, putting up the company framework and structure.
Capital is usually a critical part of any business start-up. I won’t lie, we burned through, or rather, used up the savings that we had at the time.
God also came through in a big way as some partners with a lot of goodwill gave us the boost we needed to start this venture.
I take a huge gulp of my ice-cold passion fruit juice before jumping to my next question…
Pretty simple, word of mouth. It may sound archaic or cliché but trust me, it works.
It all starts with how you introduce yourself. I can tell you for a fact that everyone I know, from Buru Buru, the neighbourhood I was born and raised in, to Nanyuki, where we are currently working on something…everyone I know or anyone who I have met knows I’m an interior designer because that is how I introduce myself.
You have to find a way to sell yourself any time you meet someone new. They may be the breakthrough you have been fasting and praying for.
If you meet someone, always tell them what you do. I can’t stress this enough.
Where was I? Yes...we started out by word of mouth which later turned to referrals. Once the word was out we then used social media to market our work. It was easier this way because, on social media, image is everything and by this point, we could showcase the work we had already done.
If I was to single out what strategy has brought us the most jobs it has to be referrals.
Hahaha...I think success can only be determined through hindsight. It’s very hard to gauge when you are actually content with what you are doing in the present moment.
What you originally thought success would be is likely to change as you grow through life as time goes on. I think you have to evaluate what was both good and bad for you and apply those experiences to your future actions.
However, if I had to define success I would associate it more with the journey of what one is trying to achieve, what you have to change in order to get to where you envision yourself.
Oooh, that kind of success haha...to us that’s just work but yes, our current location has to be right up there with our most fulfilling projects.
He looks around the lavish lounge located on the rooftop of Crossroads Plaza along Westlands Road. There is a lot of pride (the good kind) in his eyes.
Yep, this was definitely a project that pushed us to the very edge but it was worth every sleepless night. It ended up opening a lot of doors for us.
We also worked on remodeling the Nairobi Safari Club upper bar area, the Garage in Thika has our fingerprints, Empire Coffee House in Nairobi CBD, Turkish Cargo HQ in Hurlingham...we handled the office fit-out, yeah, those are some of the projects that stand out.
Oh, and we got to feature on the Business Daily some time back…Now that was a feel-good moment after so many years of self-doubt. It provided some much-needed validation that this was indeed the path I am meant to be on.
The journey has been a bittersweet symphony, where we have had some rough patches which are common to any business, especially if it’s in the process of growth i.e debts, lack of business, etc. and there are good times where business is good the company gets recognition so it has been a process and I’m quite happy for both.
We are not used to loans as a company, we try our level best to curb ourselves from accessing any type of loans.
Once upon a time, we had an emergency so we had no choice, we took one but it really drained us. Don’t get me wrong, some really successful businesses could have started out with good loans but that simply isn’t our experience.
I think in the long run it boils down to the intention of the funding, and more importantly the terms of the said loan.
Yeah, that is accurate. Maintaining a healthy cash flow has been our biggest undertaking to date. Most small businesses, just like ours, end up with higher cash outflows than setting up structures or mechanisms to secure cash inflows as well.
As a company, not being able to strike this balance hit us hard as it meant we’d find ourselves with a new potential client but no money to execute the project without a substantial deposit from the client. When working on small projects, deposits can cover most costs, but if you are going to ‘bambam with the big boys’ (government, Multinationals, etc), a healthy cash flow is mandatory.
Through our cash flow-related mistakes, we have learned to separate cash generated from projects, always having enough cash in hand to execute any given project at a moment’s notice.
We have also learned the importance of maintaining cordial relations with our suppliers. They are the lifeline of any business if you ask me. Keep them happy (pay them on time) and you’ll be happy as well.
Expansion is usually tricky as it has brought many companies to their knees when done at the wrong time. There are factors you need to consider like the revenue the company has, the inflow of business, cash flow, etc. The books have to ‘agree’ before any expansion takes place.
The economic and political environment also has an influence on a company’s expansion coz if either becomes unstable then it affects the entire process, you have to be very strategic.
Always be rational when it comes to finances, use what you have on the things that are necessary, not overspending.
You need to always be thinking of ways to grow your money, be it investing in bonds, SACCOs, real estate you name it. Make your money work for you and you are halfway there.
I don’t think I would change a thing, because if you talk about the mistakes and failures that we have had as a company, they have really helped us grow as a unit.
One has to be very patient and trust the process because anything good takes time. Getting into quick money schemes will only lead to failure.
Learn through your mistakes and failures because that’s the only way growth and maturity are achieved. Acquire knowledge, read a lot, and research.
Business money is not your personal money so use it sparingly with a proper framework in place, don’t be extravagant i.e don’t mix business and ‘other things’.
There is hindsight, foresight, and insight all of them take a critical role in running a business. And lastly, pray each day a lot of things happen in the business world so you need guidance from above.
My number one advice is always putting God first in everything that we do, for strength, insight, wisdom, guidance as holy books say “don’t lean on your own understanding”.
Embracing teamwork, where you know you can’t win alone you need people to work with to achieve that common goal, two minds are greater than one.
Learning from my mistakes and getting to grow through them, brings so much growth and maturity which is important in a business.
Read more, get to know new trends, what works best where, and so on, because the world is evolving each day. So you have to be at par in order to book a place in the market. I’m a social person, easy to blend in with people in various circles which has helped in marketing the company, getting to showcase our craft.
Networking is quite a core part when it comes to the progress and growth of any company.
As Neat n Fit we have always worked within our means and used the funds available to do what’s necessary. My advice for small businesses... “don’t be extravagant when it comes to decisions pertaining to finances. Make small moves but consistent moves. Always watch your costs”.
That was a lot to take in, sounds like the last 7 years have been some kind of school for you...he chuckles and nods just as my attending waitress waltzes over to our table with some sizzling hot meat on those fancy hot pans that work as plates these days. We are taking it straight from the fire...I find it rather poetic considering the conversation I’ve just had with Ndegwa and his own personal fires.